'Accommodating the Chaos: Samuel Beckett’s nonerelational art' by J.E. Dearlove, Durham; Duke University Press, 1982
Without realizing it Beckett critics have been holding a place on the shelf for J.E. Dearlove’s book; besides our valuable studies of the early prose, of the trilogy, and of his novelistic art, we needed a new survey and a re-mapping of the entire territory of Beckett’s fiction. Dearlove has drawn new boundaries by questioning established theories on Samuel Beckett’s imitative form and by re-defining the changes in his narrative voices. She begins with the conflict between language, which is inherently relational, and a prose that attempts to chart the nonrelation between art and artist, artist and world. Through a careful examination of Beckett’s wording in Three dialogues, in his interviews, and in his essays on Joyce and Proust, Dearlove traces Beckett’s theoretical movement from the identity of form and content to his desire to ‘find a form that accommodates the mess’ without itself becoming the chaos it embodies. In his critical statements as well as in his fiction, Beckett has discussed writing in terms of other arts - painting, ballet, music - and Dearlove pursues these analogies as she depicts his various shapes for ‘uncertainty and fluidity’.
While no complex argument can be sufficiently summarized in a paragraph, such a summary does make its general shape visible. Beckett, because of the elaborate language of his early works, is first characterized as ‘the unwilling Apollonian’, entertaining the Joycean propositions that art/world relationships do exist and that coherent structures are still possible. With the ineffectual Belacqua of More pricks than kicks, Beckett shifts from the Apollonian narrator to what Dearlove calls the ‘Murphian’ narrator, more conscious of the disjunctions between self and world. These uncertainties of nonrelation escalate in Watt and Mercier and Camier until we arrive at total disintegration and amorphousness in The Unnamable. For her discussion of the trilogy, Dearlove combines the concepts of fragmentation and tessellation: the fragments of the trilogy never form a coherent whole as do the sections of Eliot’s Waste Land; rather, the pieces remain individual tesserae even when they take shape in a Yeatsian mosaic. With the turning point of How it is, the voice that had been yearning to determine a self with a relation to an external world instead creates its own imaginary world. Similar fabricated, artificial structures predominate in the fictions of the sixties, the residua and The lost ones. After this, a new calm acceptance characterizes Beckett’s narrators as they learn to be at peace with their aloneness and nonrelation.
The major contributions of this book—and they are major additions to Beckett criticism—are its re-interpretations of Beckett’s critical pronouncements on form and its consequent remodeling of Beckett’s fictional canon. Although this is the main journey, Dearlove guides us through several short tours; and even the tangential paths are rewarding. For instance, she finds surprising correspondences between Beckett, Wordsworth, and D.H. Lawrence, as well as the obvious links between Beckett and Sterne that other scholars are fond of noting. Naturally, a contrast between Joyce’s omnipotent artist and Beckett’s impotent writer is a necessary prelude for Dearlove’s reasoning—and is found here—but beyond this Joyce also serves to explain Molloy’s failed epiphanies and the trilogy’s futile classical allusions. Although Accommodating the chaos does not reach back and outward toward Beckett’s poetry and drama—concentrating steadily on the fiction alone—an excellent treatment of Mercier and Camier’s relationship to Godot, of Beckett’s welding together of narrative and dramatic strategies, makes us wish Dearlove had tarried longer with Beckett’s theater. Throughout every discussion Dearlove reminds us of the special responsibility of the reader of nonrelational art: he must continually reconstruct Beckett’s fictional worlds. Especially for the residua (Chapter 5), it is the reader ‘and not the artist who must manipulate the given structures in order to understand an implicit content’. Indeed, she defines one of the residual texts, Ping, as ‘the drama of the interaction between reader and form’.
Accommodating the chaos has its flaws and inconsistencies, and while room for critical debate measures the large scope of the argument, some inconsistencies undermine the argument itself. At times criteria shift and demarcations between early and middle fictions become blurred. Yes, it is true that the narrative intrusions in Mercier and Camier call the novel into question, but the same may be said of the earlier Watt. Yes, the voice in How it is favors contradiction and in-process revision, but so did the voices in The Unnamable and Texts for nothing. Other distinctions also need to be drawn with more flexibility and qualification. Dearlove terms the early fiction ‘print-oriented’ as opposed to transcriptions of the spoken word that compose some later fictions, yet How it is and Lessness are markedly print-oriented with their visual effects of prose squares separated by white spaces. These and the visual and interpretative effects of Beckett’s experiments with non-sentences and non-punctuation get slighted here.
Although Dearlove’s analyses of narrative technique are typically sophisticated, there are two debatable treatments. For How it is and Enough Dearlove is too willing to take the voices at their word, and this results in some incomplete readings. In believing the crawler in the mud when he assures us that a fourth part of how it is would be redundant (would simply replay part two), Dearlove decides that the story is told from the viewpoint of part three. It makes as much sense, though, to distrust this uniquely unreliable narrator and to posit a suppressed part four in which our hero is himself being tortured, forced into the extorted speech of his monologue, the novel itself. A similar unskeptical inclination to trust the narrator of Enough leads Dearlove to find calm acceptance and a ‘sense of sufficiency’ in the voice whereas a reader could as easily detect self-delusion, contradiction, and repressed fear of death. If the narrator is lying to herself when she insists she has had ‘enough’ from life, her speech records just the opposite of satisfaction and adequacy. Distortions and misinterpretations occur when complex fictions are squeezed into a category, resembling those overly neat pigeon holes Beckett warned about.
Some of Beckett’s works fit almost too comfortably into Dearlove’s new schema, and some remain problematic, for example From an abandoned work, that puzzling and aborted reversion to English after Texts for nothing. Its placement in the book appears plausible and persuasive until we re-read the piece and notice discrepancies. Is it accurate to say that From an abandoned work with all its false starts, arbitrary sequences, and contradictions ‘returns [Beckett] to the structures and certainties of earlier literatures’ and that ‘Apollonian assumptions overwhelm’ the piece? Here is a representative speech from our abandoned narrator:’… why the curses were pouring out of me I do not know, no, that is a foolish thing to say .... Is it the stoats now, no, first I just sink down again and disappear in the ferns...’ How then can it be written that ‘Instead of crossing out lines or deleting passages, the narrator retains what he has said and explains it…’ (p. 132)?
The occasional stress point in this network of judgments finds its counterpart in the style of the book, which is frustratingly uneven—at times graceful, at others pedantic. Its argument is almost too organized, with chapter endings summarizing the ideas of each section (in phrases echoing the chapter introductions) as in a college textbook. Perhaps Dearlove felt that since her thesis was complicated, the reader would require more than his usual quota of verbal signposts, transitions, and recapitulations. But this would not explain the many sentences repeated, with slight variations, in the space of a few pages—or in one case, within a paragraph (p. 51). Another odd repetition is the recurrence of the verb ‘intimate’ every several pages, in many varied contexts, where one would normally expect to see ‘suggest’ or ‘reflect’ or ‘imply’. One statement offers us a choice of ‘imitate or intimate’, perhaps hinting at the author’s indecision about whether form truly imitates content or only ‘intimates’ something about the substance. These oddities are obvious and disappointing because they surface in an otherwise smooth field of prose. Overall, Dearlove is deft at unobtrusively interweaving short and long quotations, page references, and close attention to Beckett’s language in a style that manages to be highly readable. At moments her prose achieves the quality of a gem-like short story, with an unusual but utterly perfect phrase, such as ‘fading velleities’ for the consciousness of Ping. Also, some sentences, in a cadenced balance, simultaneously demonstrate and dispel the very paradox they ponder: about Ping again, ‘The reader is left with a shape that gestures toward shapelessness, and with phrases that suggest but never mean’. Virtually all the sentences about Lessness are as well-formed as that one, and this beautiful style conveying an astute explication of Lessness produces the best analysis in the book.
Accommodating the chaos is thoughtful and thought-provoking, forcing us to reevaluate Beckett’s narrative development and his reconciliation between relational and nonrelational art. And this in turn compels us to re-think the basic relationships between form and content, and among narrator, text, and reader. Whoever ventures new categories for a canon must take a risk, partly because classification systems seem made to be challenged; and our disagreements with and counter-examples to the categories and patterns Dearlove offers testify to the intellectual engagement this book prompts.